“Can I have one more peanut butter?” Francis asked. He had walked through the garden gate and now stood behind me as I rocked, full-bodied, back and forth in front of the grain mill. “Yeah,” I answered, my breath a bit short, happy to have a little break. “Climb on up,” I said, indicating the tree stump nearby. We stood in the shade of the workshop, next to a long wooden table covered with garden tools and irrigation supplies. Over the fence, I could hear the girls filling their jars with a leaky hose. I had been vigorously pumping the handle of the mill for over half an hour, but I had yet to get through half the gallon of nuts I roasted that morning.
“Take a finger from the dish,” I told Francis, who looked up with some uncertainty. A giant wad of peanut butter clung to the workings of the mill, hanging precipitously in the air like a freeform sculpture. Earlier, as the kids and I had watched eagerly for the first signs to ooze out of the mill, they had scraped and eaten it directly off the mill itself. I had watched, not without some consternation, as every sign of my effort disappeared into their smiling mouths.
Francis stuck his finger greedily into the pool of golden brown paste, still warm from the friction of the steel burrs. I smiled. As I had pumped the handle, the wad of peanut butter clinging to the mill occasionally calved, like an iceberg, dropping fresh clumps into the glass dish below and melting, to the constant vibration of the table, into the flat, shimmering pool of nut butter in which Francis now had his finger, up to the third knuckle. Scooping up a thick glob, Francis stuck his finger into his mouth and smiled. “Mmmmm…,” he said, eyes lighting up with delight.
I like to call myself a gourmand, by which I mean to contrast myself to a gourmet. A gourmet might linger over a plate of rich, savory food for an hour, taking the time to make each bite a unique blend of the delicate flavors arranged across the plate. Fresh basil, cheese, tomato, toasted bread, cilantro and olives - eating is a whole experience. I prefer simple foods, and it rarely takes me more than five minutes to gather them and shove them into my mouth. Plates, in most cases, aren’t even necessary.
To me, the quality of the food is about the quality of the ingredients and how they act on my body, not how they taste. Sure, I like it if things taste good, but so long as they don’t taste bad I don’t particularly care. I also like plain foods, like peanut butter, apples, bread - foods that are comprised of only one or a handful of ingredients. I like to observe how each food acts on my body, and by maintaining a baseline of routine and simplicity I have a fairly clear window into how each affects my energy level, my mood and the course of my day.
All this is to say that I’m extremely boring, and the kids know it. While other parents will make chicken and rice with creamy sauces, or sweet rolls with cinnamon, dates and sugar, I offer things like sliced local apples, fresh roasted peanuts, homemade bread and muesli. Children new to my care usually love it, but after spending weeks and months, sometimes years, with me, they tend to get a little bored. This is a common theme in my life. At first glance, pumping the grain mill just outside the garden gate, I appear unique and interesting. After a while, I’m just different and boring.
I’d been out of peanut butter for weeks. A couple months ago I bought fifty pounds of peanuts. I was delighted to have found organic peanuts grown in southern New Mexico that were still raw. Organic peanuts are easy to find, but almost always roasted. Once roasted, the oils quickly degrade and become rancid. Fact is, basically every jar of peanut butter in the store is already rancid. I know this seems picky, but my palate, being used to simple flavors, is sensitive enough that I can taste it. Plus, I know a little bit about what those rotting oils do in my blood stream. That’s why I wanted raw peanuts. When my order arrived, via my local co-op, the nuts, which were shelled, were still covered in their little red skins, like old fashioned bathing suits. Perfect, I thought.
After dodging a few bad roasting experiences (the paper skins aren’t easy to remove efficiently in large quantities and they smoke if they get too hot) I had mostly had good luck roasting them. I had made some good peanut butter here and there, but I hadn’t, as yet, found a consistent and reliable way to do it. The Vitamix, a commercial grade blender, didn’t cream it. It made more of a flour. I had used a friend’s juicer once, which did a good job, but then he moved, along with his juicer. I also have access to a professional kitchen, with a large, high-quality juicer. I tried that once, and it was perfect, but making a gallon of peanut butter takes a long time, and the clean-up is significant. I felt like an imposition on the kitchen staff, something I don’t want to do regularly.
“Do you guys still have that grain mill?” I asked Francis’s mother one day. We were in the kitchen at New Buffalo, where both of us are regularly engaged in long food projects. I’m constantly dealing with half-rotting apples, or making something I call cereal. She makes kim chi and fermented dosas. Once, I watched her make a huge jar of pate from dove organs. Others make cheese from the sheep’s milk. Being a community kitchen, we mostly share common pots and pans, but each of us has a few specialty items that we like to keep to ourselves. Delicate tools are, by and large, a no-no in a community kitchen. I have a large stainless steel pressure cooker I’m especially attached to, and when I first arrived I decided to share it with everyone. Of course, it was dropped at one point and the handle shattered, along with all the intricate locking mechanisms. Out of commission for a few weeks, I finally located replacement parts and fixed it. The other day, I saw a note in the kitchen that read “Anyone seen the kitchen thermometer?”, under which was scribbled, “Got bent. Threw it out.” If I had a heavy duty grain mill, you can be sure I wouldn’t leave it in the kitchen. But Francis’s mother and I are old friends. I figured I could borrow it and try it out, so long as I returned it. Plus, on a sunny day, I could just attach it to a sturdy table outside and grind away.
“I want a bite!” Ruby said, peering through the gate at Francis and me. She had a glass jar in her hands, half full of water, mud all over her hands and face. “Me too!” Pema shouted, somewhere off to the left, not wanting to be left out. “Sure,” I said, “Just…wash your hands first.”
Making food with the kids is always a good time. They love to cut vegetables for soup, mix bread dough, or scoop dry ingredients into containers for muesli. At first I resisted it, thinking they would make a mess of it, but I quickly realized it was my own persnicketiness that was the problem, not them. By making small adjustments to my methods, and just relaxing, I can cook and prepare things in almost the same amount of time as I would solo and usually we have a grand time doing it. Hand-ground peanut butter, it was turning out, was a series project, but the kids were perfectly content bouncing from my side to the garden, and back, as the inkling struck.
Silke said this to me once, and I’ve remembered it ever since - the goal of a Waldorf teacher is to be meaningfully engaged in a useful task and to let the children play nearby or join in as they see fit. In other words, standing around and watching the kids is a recipe for disaster. A corollary to the rule, as I’ve discovered, is that, while the kids enjoy the occasional input of creative energy I can infuse into a game, the best thing to do is back off once they are engaged. Otherwise, the play centers around gaining my attention or approval. I want to foster the kids’ creativity, not my own.
It can be very hard not to invade a child’s play space, especially when, from the outside, I can see that it’s so rich and imaginative. But time and again I’ve seen myself, or another well-meaning adult, enter the subtle boundaries of play space to say hello or to give an approving smile. Who doesn’t want to share in that joy? But the consequence, I’ve found, is often to break the spell of the children’s own world. Suddenly, no longer in China on a beach full of crabs, the children look around and realize that, after all, we’re just at home and those rocks are just rocks. The chickens are just chickens. Bereft of their former world, the kids sometimes cannot find their way back and we quickly degrade to that familiar sense of uncertainty and boredom. Once again, the kids begin angling for attention and approval. So I’ve learned never to disturb that play space unless I have to. I work, or play as it may be, alongside it.
“I’m full,” Ruby said, her finger a slimy mix of peanut butter and saliva. “Yeah,” Pema agreed, pushing out her belly for emphasis. “Yeah,” Francis copied with a giggle. The flat pool of oily peanut butter had been, due to some disturbance, whipped into a frenzy of choppy waves. A massive chunk of peanut butter still hung precipitously above the waters. No time for a boat ride.
The kids hopped off their stumps and ambled back to the garden as I put another cup of peanuts in the hopper, each nut ringing with a merry clink, and set to grinding. The table began to shake, the peanut butter began to settle, and the familiar whirr of the steel burrs played upon my ears. My body was one constant motion, shifting my weight from toe to toe, foot to foot. With each cycle of the handle, the giant wad of peanut butter slowly grew. To my right, on the ground, were the layers of clothing I had shed as my body, much like the peanuts through the workings of the mill, heated up. Over the fence, I could hear the kids refilling their jars under the hose.